I know it's been a bumpy ride for all of us the last couple of days. Here's something that's not about an irredeemable incompetent in a position of power:
We live in a golden age of reissues. Every publishing season seems to bring fresh editions from a vital but ignored past: say, Clarice Lispector, who had one book come out last year, or Lucia Berlin, who had two. For readers, republication offers something rare: the possibility of reclaiming history simply by opening a book. The proper response to this is surely celebration. But I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead.
The article in question is on Elsa Morante, another largely unsung author — Italian, whose husband was the far more famous Alberto Moravia, hopelessly overshadowed by him both during her lifetime and long after. This piece makes a fine argument for bumping her up to the top of the list; I was already working my way, slowly, through Moravia's catalog (The Conformist has never been more relevant or hair-raising), but now I want to parallel that forward march through his work with one through Morante's.
It's the bolded bit above, though, that caught my eye, because I feel the same way — except that I'm not depressed about it.
First, it takes time, and nothing but, for the wheat to sift itself from the chaff. Most of the best writers who ever lived were never recognized in their time — whether because of the politics of publishing, or because they were pushing their respective creative envelopes to the point where it couldn't even be recognized as an envelope anymore, or because they were just plain unlucky. Most of the best writers working now are never going to be known in their time, either, for the same reasons.
Second, the vast majority of what's published right now, despite its hotness and hype and blurbage, is not going to be worth the trouble. That's not me being pre-emptively cynical; that's just the odds, gang. Very little of what is published in a given moment in time is anything but a reflection of that moment in time. Sometimes, every so often, there's a magic congruence of sorts, and the thing that embodies its moment perfectly becomes an emblem of that moment for the ages (The Great Gatsby comes most to mind, for the recent decades). But there's no sense in trying to force that to happen. The great stuff comes as it will.
Third, the sheer number of things from times past now coming up for their overdue attention thanks to good editorial curation gives us plenty to work with. There is no shortage of Good Things to choose from right now. The other day I had to explain, with no small amount of guilt and chagrin, that I had not in fact seen The Good Place, a show that sounds more like my kinda thing the more I hear about it. But it was in serious competition with everything from Randall Jarrell's collected essays to Tove "Moomin" Jansson's The Summer Book. And that's not even taking into account how in the larger context the written word, filmed image, and recorded performance is being sidelined by video games, "experientials" (e.g. escape rooms) and all manner of other things.
It's sad that these great authors are no longer going to give us anything new. There isn't a day that goes by when I wish Georges Simenon was still producing, but the guy left us so damn much stuff to savor that the feeling doesn't last long. Ditto Sōseki Natsume, and all the more so, since he didn't leave us much. But what he did leave us, I cling to my breast a dozen times more fiercely than the competition. If I only come across one author like that in a great while, I consider myself damn lucky.
Reading ought to be a plentiful thing, and I'd rather people read not-great books than none at all. But if I'm going to pick and choose — and I do have that luxury for now — then I'm going to pick and choose the things that seem to be interesting for reasons beyond whatever the moment's demands are. And if the choice is between dead and in print, or dead and out of print (or dead and never printed), I'll take the first of those in an eyeblink.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind